The most relatable movie in the world
The tyranny of (re)production in Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World
The Worst Person in the World is always introduced as relatable. Relatable, as in, you have to see it, it is the best representation of dating and relationships today. We ask ourselves endlessly: why is Julie, the main character, so indecisive about everything? And is that at the core of her dissatisfaction? What about her leaving a seemingly loving, stable relationship for a thrill of a new, budding crush? Where are the boundaries of infidelity? These questions are justified, but frankly, not worth our time. What we should be asking ourselves is this: is Julie something more than a sum of her romantic relationships and work pursuits, vaguely presented as life purpose? And, crucially, does she have any genuine, satisfying friendships in her life?
The relatability around this movie has evolved into a discourse of its own. I think it works on two levels. First, the storyline and the details. The focus is on Julie, stumbling through her 20s, with no vision of a career dedication and ups and downs of relationships, presenting a sensitively-weaved mythology of a millenial life where whatever you do, there always seems to be the possibility of growth. Like one Letterboxd review says, “this is a movie about growing out bangs.” The movie leans into the tinderification of life. There is always something, or someone better around the corner; a more satisfying choice is to be had or achieved. We gasp at the scenes that neatly fit into the whole of the movie and contribute to the narrative but could also stand on their own as screenshots on our feeds. It's Eivind, Julie's new boyfriend, accidentally liking his ex's photo on Instagram. It's Julie, switching through three different degree options (from medicine, to psychology, to photography, nonetheless), always on the count of an innate drive to self-actualize, eventually ending up in a dead-end customer service job. It's Aksel, an accomplished (in a traditional success-defined way) comic artist, pondering whether investing his passion in cultural artifacts of his youth and never moving on was perhaps a sign of wanting to be comforted and safe, rather than truly enjoying them. While the story banks on this idea that progress is attainable and there is better stuff around the corner, the said better stuff never arrives. Julie keeps on living, acquiring experiences, getting older.
The other level of relatability, that I would hope stirs a deep level of discomfort, is the omission of some crucial aspects of, simply put, being a person in the world. Then the question of whether Julie is the worst person does not matter, because she does not strike me as a full person to begin with, in fact. We don't see any friendships. We see acquaintances and family relations. But there is no sense of friendship at large, or community, or being involved in anything, through interests and emotional investments. Historically, cinema has not been kind towards female characters. I find the omission of said elements so glaring, so deeply troublesome, I am inclined to give the director the benefit of a doubt. I believe the omission was done on purpose. What then makes for the relatability is precisely what is missing: the possibility of being oneself through something other than romantic relationships and work lightly disguised as a life calling. This life purpose is hinted at. For Julie, maybe it's settling down with Aksel. Maybe it's having kids. Maybe it's a career that would satisfy her, finally. She finds it briefly in writing, which she does almost accidentally. But then she gives up.
There is an undercurrent of discontent that Julie experiences, and even falling in love is not enough to take her out of it. The Worst Person in the World is not a movie about dating and relationships, it's a movie about how we came to rely on them as our sole anchoring point in life. Instead it could be one of many. It's about our collective inability to disperse our desire beyond romantic love and work: the tyranny of (re)production. The first time I encountered the concept of a meaning of life was perhaps in eight grade in elementary school. The teacher presented it as every person having one meaning, one thing to live for: children, work, religion, make your pick. A child does not need to be precocious to already be asking themselves: but what about people who have children, and like their jobs, and find purpose in having faith? In looking back at one of many moments where adults seemed to be ill-equipped at answering anything deeper than, what are we having for lunch today, I see that not much has changed. You get one or two anchors. That's your identity.
Recently I read Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, in which Franco Bifo Berardi charts the increasing involvement of mind, language, and emotion, in the sphere of labor. In a span of several decades, pouring our desire into work became both normal and desired. What we previously gave to and expected from romantic love, we now also give to and expect from work. I can't help but think it's not enough. Desire, it has to go further. I keep asking myself, who is Julie outside of her boyfriends and dwindling career search?
Berardi anecdotally mentions a meeting held in Bologna in the late 1970s by the Workerist movement. He berates choosing a specific topic for their discussion, as the members of the movement were then unable to escape the chains of power dynamics stemming from that topic. They were unable to imagine “new forms of life.”1 I mention this anecdote because it got me thinking about what is missing from The Worst Person in the World, and by extension, our lives: diffusion and imagination. Diffusion of desire towards something other than romantic relationships and work. In practical terms it is a shifting of attention for sustained periods of time. More importantly, it is a shifting of a way of living, not only on an individual scale. To do that, one needs to start with imagining a host of possibilities, imagining an otherwise, to borrow Lola Olufemi's term. Yeah, that sounds scary.
The omissions in The Worst Person in the World are the message. I dream that in the final scene in which Julie clicks away at the screen, newly single, editing the photos she took during an advertising campaign, is asking herself: could there be something else? And not necessarily something better, but something wider, with more shades, that I could immerse myself in, like the whole of life?
Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotext(e): South Pasadena), p. 175.